Eight years after her father waged a losing bid for the 2nd District seat, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard captured the seat herself, following incumbent Mazie Hirono’s decision to run for the Senate. The former Honolulu City Council member survived a hard-fought primary to notch an easy general-election victory in this overwhelmingly Democratic state, becoming the first Hindu in the House.
The fourth of five children, Gabbard was born in American Samoa and moved with her family to Hawaii at a young age. Her father, Mike Gabbard, was the Republican candidate for this seat in 2004 and currently serves in the Hawaii Senate; her mother, Carol Gabbard, formerly served on the state Board of Education. Both made names in Hawaii politics as strong opponents of gay marriage, a position their daughter rejects. Gabbard was homeschooled, and along with her brothers and sister, helped run a family restaurant. She graduated from Hawaii Pacific University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
At age 19, Gabbard and her father cofounded the Healthy Hawaii Coalition, an environmental-education nonprofit that teaches elementary students about the ways humans can positively and negatively impact the environment. This focus on energy and environmental issues was evident in her campaign: She ran on investing in alternative energy as a way of diversifying Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy, as well as making the state’s energy supply more secure.
In 2002, Gabbard ran for and won a seat representing West Oahu in the state House of Representatives. At 21, she was the youngest woman ever elected to a state Legislature. “A lot of people told me I was crazy and too young, but I really felt the need and passion to do more with my life and be able to make a positive impact for others,” she said in an interview.
While serving in the Legislature, she enlisted in the Hawaii Army National Guard in 2003 as a private and completed her basic training in South Carolina between legislative sessions. In 2004, while campaigning for reelection, her unit was activated, but Gabbard herself was not given orders to deploy. Declaring, “No way would I stay home and watch 3,000 of my brothers and sisters deploy without me,” she withdrew from the campaign and voluntarily deployed with the medical unit for 18 months.
In 2007, she went to Officer Candidate School in Alabama, becoming the first woman to graduate at the top of her class. She deployed again in 2008, to Kuwait as a military police platoon leader training counterterrorism units. She says that one of her main priorities in Congress will be to bring all troops home from Afghanistan.
In between tours of duty, she worked as a legislative aide to Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka. Citing a long-term interest in film and television, last year she started her own film production company, Kanu Productions.
Gabbard was elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2010. She said that her proudest accomplishments in office include helping to legalize food trucks and organizing an environmental cleanup following a landfill overflow.
When Hirono announced her run for the retiring Akaka’s seat, Gabbard was the first of six Democrats to jump into the race, touting herself as a fresh voice for Washington. Her main primary opponent, who led for most of the race, was former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who had run for governor in 2010. Hannemann held a 3-to-1 lead in a February 2012 poll, but Gabbard steadily closed the gap, and her 20 percentage-point victory in the primary surprised observers.
She went on in the fall to easily beat Kawika Crowley, a Republican handyman who was living out of his car and whose longtime issue has been repeal of smoking bans in public places. Crowley is an avid cigar smoker and calls himself a tea party activist.